Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.
And for the finale, all the team is here, ready, sharp, even Tibère who watched the episode drunk (true story – apparently pina colada and Cyberconversions are a great mix), and joined by our last guest of the series, Sam Baker – who you might remember from our article on Bill Potts and sexuality in Who! -. His blog, Sam’s Random Musings, can be found here – https://samsrandommusings.wordpress.com/ .
Spoilers follow, obviously.
1) General Thoughts
SCARVES: Well, that was a fantastic episode. The dialogue was superb, and frequently funny, it made brilliant use of its big sci fi conceit, and was a chilling and tense build to a gut punch of a cliffhanger. That said, and not to tip my hand too much for the next section, the nature of said cliffhanger means that my enjoyment of this episode comes with some major caveats – its gut punch comes by invoking some incredibly uncomfortable tropes, and while the finale can, and based on Moffat’s work so far, I think there’s plenty of reason to believe it will, subvert said tropes, and in doing so repair any damage done by this episode, it’s still worth asking the question of asking whether it was worth invoking said tropes in the first place.
SCRIBBLES: I’ve felt like series 10 has, at worst, been playing a bit too safe. Some of that’s been amazing. Stuff like “Thin Ice” is clearly a highlight of the year, and it plays it straight down the line. But I’ve missed the rough, the weird, the provocative. I think Doctor Who needs to always be pushing into new areas and trying new things. All of this is just a long winded way of me saying I enjoyed this tremendously. It was a single, determined, macabre vision, sort of like we last saw in “Corpse Day,” pushing the boundaries of Doctor Who and finding the most efficient character hook to explore the Cybermen ever. And the intricacies of the script are wonderful. There’s so many thematic through-lines being paid off, and some really wonderful structure. This is up there with “Extremis” for me as a highlight of the year, and that’s in part because it does boldly walk so far into areas of great risk and controversy, but mostly because it handles it all with brilliance and artistry.
TIBERE: Yeah, this is a brilliant episode. It’s not perfect – and it definitely took me a second viewing to really appreciate it – but, when you really get down to it, it’s just one impeccably constructed, thematically rich piece of work. This feels like Moffat firing on all cylinders, being at the top of his powers one last time – maybe it’s not my favourite script of his, but damn, it’s always something special when you’re reminded of just how good the man can be. Best episode of the year by a fair margin, even if I still love “Eaters of Light” – and I fully expect “The Doctor Falls” to be even better.
SAM: Well, I for one completely adored this episode, in every aspect. Sure, there’s a few niggles with the latter end of the story … but for now I’m able to push them aside and take the episode for what it is, because I’m absolutely sure that Moffat will end up subverting the story in the next part. But yeah, that for me was Doctor Who at its most daring, at its most terrifying. This was a story that wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries and defy our usual expectations. This was the first time since … oh, maybe the 50th anniversary, where I was left completely in numb shock by what I’d just witnessed. It really had a profound impact on me, and for that I cannot praise it enough.
TIBERE: Really, something that has struck me recently is how much Moffat seems to have focused on horror recently – it was always here in his writing, really, but mostly as an aesthetic element. But stuff like “Extremis” or this rely much more – entirely, even, one could argue – on horror: cosmic horror, body horror. I’m not going to complain, really, considering that the horror story is probably one of my favourite genres – and it highlights just how much good, daring talent must go into one. Horror needs to be conceptual – that’s why “Knock Knock” was such a drag and a disappointment. And really, “World Enough and Time” nails everything – it nails the pacing, it nails the slow feeling of inevitability and doom, it nails the bitter moments of dark poetry, it nails the relevance and the politics … It’s masterful. Eh eh. Masterful. See what I did there?
SCRIBBLES: For me, there’s two core things that I love about the approach here. First, yeah, that walk into horror is utterly perfect. I’ve always thought the best way to get under the skin of the Cybermen was to put a companion in that situation and follow them through that trauma. Because the Cybermen aren’t monsters, they’re tragedies. It feels overdue to explore, and while macabre, Bill makes for a strong core and gets to start showing us what that experience is like. I don’t doubt she’ll escape, but Doctor Who is stronger for delving into that. But what’s more, I think in general this episode illuminates a lot of series 10. We’re starting to see themes come to a head, all set up for fascinating new collisions and resolutions next week. Even conversations we had last week in our “Eaters of Light” conversation hang heavy over this, small thematic musings having big impact here. It feels tight and meticulous and a perfect way to draw this year to its darkest, preparing for the final act.
TIBERE: And really, this does what all the best series finales must do: give the whole run before it a sense of coherence and purpose. Because you mentioned “Eaters of Light”, but really, there’s just a host, a gigantic horde, of references to past episodes here. Discrete ones, of course, and we’ll come to them as we talk about the episode’s themes and all that, but still – it makes the run feel so much richer and more interesting … I think one of my favourite ones, which might be purely accidental, but was still lovely on a rewatch, was the way some scenes and shots almost echoed “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”, which kickstarted this new run of the show. Creepy surgeons doing unspeakable things in room filled with blue light. Nice visual patterns, blimey.
2) Controversy & Representation
SCARVES: Well, I’ll stay away from the discussion of class tensions and leave that to Tibere, as I know he has most of the interesting things to say about that aspect of the episode. Instead, I’ll dive straight into the aspect of the episode I alluded to in the first section: the controversy surround Bill’s plotline in this episode. Because I do have problems with the way this episode invoked “woman in refrigerator” and “bury your gays” tropes. There’s plenty of room for next week’s episode to subvert said tropes, and I hope it does, and in doing so, it will probably find something extremely valuable to say. Nonetheless, a lot of fans who’ve invested a lot in the representation Bill provides, are understandably, quite upset by the incredibly visceral nature of what we see Bill go through in this episode, and the reminders of other times media has let them down in its representation of characters whose identity they share. After all, Bill isn’t the first lesbian in genre fiction to be killed by a stray bullet, and at this point, there’s no guarantee that her cyber conversion will be reversed in “The Doctor Falls”, and that she won’t ultimately receive a happier. As a result, while I don’t agree with the extreme criticism this episode has recieved by some fans, simply on the grounds that it’s too early to make a judgement call, I understand why they reacted that way, and think it’s definitely fair that some people, who share a more personal connection to Bill as a character than me, feel like what we saw in this episode went
SCRIBBLES: And it’s a vital conversation to have. While people are overreacting, it’s an utterly justified overreaction, if that makes sense. Television has been really, really awful to women, people of color, and queer people. Bill’s all three. So beyond the internal patterns of Moffat, where this is a normal beat, there’s external patterns of the media landscape, where this is a normal beat of shameless fridging. It’s easy if you’re familiar enough with Moffat to assume Bill will make it out okay, but plenty of people understandably don’t have that trust because the world has not been fair. Her voice in the trailer for “The Doctor Falls” just isn’t quite enough to comfort people who are sick of losing things and just saw a giant hole blown through Bill’s chest. I think “World Enough and Time” was an excellent and extremely worth telling story, but given how hard things have been, and the general climate of anxiety toward Moffat that has been stirred up on social media over the years, the backlash and fear are not surprising.
TIBERE: As I pointed out on Tumblr after the episode air, above all things, it’s revealing how shit representation is for POC and queer people, really – in a perfect world, I think people would read that whole situation with far less passion, and be more ready to wait and see part two to judge. Sadly, when there is just that much past wrongs and bad blood hanging around situations like this, where progressive shows and storylines led to a brick wall … I don’t think that the people that were really angry about the episode are overreacting, or throwing a tantrum. I understand where they’re coming from – really, while I’m entirely sure she will have a happy ending, I still feel a sort of dread, waiting for the finale. Even me, someone who’s spent way too much time studying Moffat’s writing, am falling prey to that kind of primal emotional response.
SAM: Yeah, this was initially a huge worry for me when the rumours first started circulating that Bill was to be converted into a Cyberman. For exactly the reasons you state above, we have enough LGBTQ+ and POC characters dying within fiction, whether that’s TV, film, literature, etc. … And I didn’t want Doctor Who dipping its toes into these horrible tropes. Because, as Scarves quite rightly acknowledged, people are really identifying with Bill. For the first time, young children who are struggling with the sexualities have a hero on TV they can relate to, for once they have a reason to think “Hell, if she can go through time and space and go on all these amazing adventures, if she can live her life free from the fear and prejudices her sexuality brings, why can’t I?” And so for them to witness Bill being converted in such a horrific and visceral way, it would be quite traumatising for them. Especially those young children. However, having watched the episode, I now have full faith in that Moffat to resolve this particular thread and give Bill a happier ending. I mean, just look at what he did in ‘Hell Bent’ with his wonderful subversion of the fridging trope. I have absolute certainty that this is Moffat taking the tropes that have plagued the LBGTQ+ fandom for many, many years, and saying “You can do these stories, and yet still give the characters hope, still give the audience hope – a happy ending is still possible, and I’ll show you how”. And you know, Doctor Who is the perfect show to do this. It’s a show about time and space where there’s a limitless realm of possibilities. I don’t think this is the end for Bill, at all. There’s hope for her yet.
SCRIBBLES: Yeah. Basically, because Bill is the diverse, wonderful representation she is of many marginalized intersections of society, she naturally does come with some complications. The more loaded the meaning you’re working with is, the more unfortunate the implications you can come across are. Hell, I even saw some people drawing connections between the conversion theatres for upgrades to Cybermen and anti-gay conversion therapy, which I highly, highly doubt was intentional, but still is tremendously loaded and uncomfortable to consider. I absolutely believe everything here was worth doing, and it certainly seems that critically and within the fandom at large the episode has been received tremendously well. But it’s the most vulnerable viewers that are feeling exposed and there is understandable reason for that. This shouldn’t be something so troubling, but, given the injustice in the world we live in, it can’t really be anything but that.
SCARVES: It’s also worth comparing what the episode does to similar fates met by other main characters throughout Moffat’s era. Some fans have acted like Moffat would never put one of his straight white leads through this kind of trauma, but that is kind of provably not the case – it’s hard to suggest that this is significantly worse than say, Amy’s trauma in series six, Rory’s many deaths, Clara’s death in “Face the Raven” (an event that does set a precedent that suggests Moffat will probably want to find a way to get Bill out of her apparent fate in this episode). But perhaps the best comparison for me is the Doctor’s experience in “Heaven Sent” – he burns himself to death billions of times over billions of years while trapped in a torture chamber – it’s a fate that is just as visceral and horrifying as Bill’s in this episode. But we see the Doctor escape at the end of “Heaven Sent”. We see him triumph, pretty much as we learn about what he’s going through – there’s an instant release there that we don’t get with Bill here. I don’t want to come across as a 21st century Mary Whitehouse, who (alongside being a terrible person) made the ridiculous claim that children who watched the cliffhanger to episode three of “The Deadly Assassin” would think the Doctor was being drowned underwater for a whole week. But it is understandable that fans have reacted differently to watching Bill go through a trauma that, while not clearly more extreme than that of the Doctor in “Heaven Sent”, doesn’t carry the instant release of tension that “Heaven Sent” provides. Bill is completely stripped of her agency over the course of this episode, and thus far, hasn’t had the chance to claim it back. In fairness to the episode, it does still do some things to mitigate the extent of the horror of Bill’s ordeal in the episode – she’s killed by a stray bullet (something that has happened to far too many non straight women in genre fiction), but the episode quickly reassures us that she isn’t going to stay dead. And we get to spend a lot of time with her, which is an underrated thing to do with any character – she may not have a lot of agency, but I’ll advocate for the claim that giving Bill plenty of screentime and focus still does a hell of a lot more for her character, and our investment in her, than the standard companion material she got in episodes like “The Empress of Mars”. And even the cliffhanger placed an emphasis on her tear, and the shot of her eye – a moment that does emphasise the fact that Bill can still feel, in spite of the cyber conversion, and is still in there – it still leaves us with hope for her. Is this enough? I’d argue not, but equally, I don’t think it’s worth ignoring completely.
TIBERE: It’s always the same old question – can writers that are not part of minority groups write stories focusing on the experiences of said minority groups? And should they? My answer to both of those is a “kinda, with caveats”, I suppose. And I agree with certain elements of commentary I’ve seen – this is not quite “Face the Raven”, which did set up an eventual reversal of fridging tropes, but still made sure that Clara had agency in her death in the first place. Here, there is something dark and nasty about Bill’s death – and the unpleasantness of the episode sometimes feel unintentional. I think that the best of horror as a genre comes from a place of relatability, really – that’s why “Get Out” was such a success this year, for instance, I feel. Random example – one of my favourite horror stories is Clive Barker’s Hellraiser; and it’s great in no small parts because of Barker’s great intimate knowledge of both the S&M world, and what it meant to live as a gay man at the time of AIDS. Interestingly, when Barker wrote a story about the exploitation of black people in America – that’d be “Candyman” -, the main character is a white woman. The movie (and book, I assume) is sympathetic to POC, but doesn’t try to directly portray their exploitation and suffering. Here, I guess you sort of feel like this is the maximum Moffat can do, the sort of logical endpoint of this progressive streak he has been developing over the past few years. He does this wonderful story about class and privilege and oppression, but I’m not sure he can make it entirely hit because at the end of the day, there is going to be a distance between him and Bill. That doesn’t mean the episode is bad – it’s very, very good, up there with Moffat’s best stuff. But that maybe what makes it just “phenomenal” instead of “absolutely perfect”. Really, I would just feel more comfortable if that storyline was handled by a woman or a POC. And I love Moffat! But I wonder what that story would look like were it written by, I don’t know, Sarah Dollard.
SAM: But I don’t think the story was deliberately focusing, and structuring, the episode around the experience of someone from a minority group. I’ve probably not explained this very well, but the way I see it, and I think it’s the way Moffat saw it, too, is that Bill’s sexual orientation and the colour of her skin were never meant to be the focal point of the episode. Bill’s never been defined by her sexuality or her race, to her they’re just an ordinary part of her life – nothing to be made a big deal of. Instead, this was an episode focusing on the HUMAN experience. What it means to actually be converted into a cyberman from the human perspective. And in that regard, I do feel Moffat is entitled to write that.
TIBERE: It’s true that they don’t spend all their time restating the fact that Bill is black and gay – unlike what many, many, many people have said on the Internet … -, and yes, I feel like the episode has a level of universality to its themes (really, good fiction generally has that). But at the same time, it does seem like a beat that’s, if not entirely reliant on her race and sexuality, still draws strength from it. I don’t think it would hit nearly as hard if it were another companion in her place – not even Martha, not even Rose. It’s intersectionality, really – the fact she is a queer, working class WOC makes the commentary the episode provides a lot more powerful. And of course, there’s the fact that even if Moffat is interested in the human condition first – I’m not sure I entirely agree on this, but it’s a possible reading – Bill still is a gay, working class WOC. Those things don’t disappear, and there still are potential issues with the way she’s handled. That kind of distance I mentioned – which I think is also why the story, while focused on Bill, is also largely centered about the privileges of the upper class, of those that “fit the norm”, so to speak. Write what you know, that’s the big rule writers generally apply in those cases.
SAM: A rule that I don’t necessarily agree with, but that’s a conversation for another day…
SCRIBBLES: The point is with all cases of such deaths and suffering, really, is that they say important things about the characters in this journey. Every character, every story has to have a darkest hour, a point of despair and hopelessness. Amy’s is tied to her own past, for example, anxieties about being abandoned, about childhood, about trauma. Bill’s meanwhile, grounds itself in the reality of social status with Bill. Bill has always been a woman who is open and upfront about herself and grounded in an identity of someone on the less privileged side of the social spectrum. That’s been a recurring point throughout the plots and themes of this year, and has established itself as key to everything this run is about. It’s about social struggle, oppression, and diverse voices in a time of crisis, really, reflecting the current state of the world. And that’s externalized into the plot of “World Enough and Time.”
3) Structure, Class & Gender Roles
SCRIBBLES: As has been the case a few times in Doctor Who, there’s an above/below structure to space in this episode that thematically represents class structures. It’s prevalent in stories like “The Beast Below,” for example, or “Thin Ice.” The size of the ship here allows for a physical mapping of status, ascending and descending as key to navigating a social landscape of privilege, oppression, and survival.
TIBERE: And of course, we are reaching the KATABASIS! point here. Peter Capaldi’s era, and Peter Capaldi’s finales in particular, are all about those descents into hell – entering another dimension or realm where the rules of Doctor Who are more flexible, and where the dead and the living coexist.
SCRIBBLES: Here we get a nice addition with the time dilation as well, which adds greater meaning to this class commentary. What for the Doctor, our well-meaning but immensely privileged hero, is mere minutes having a conversation and beating up a worker becomes years of manual labor for Bill, exploited in the most physical and visceral way possible. I think it’s no coincidence that this is the first episode since “The Pilot” that we really see Bill’s ties to her working class life, still working in the canteen and frying chips as always, which juxtaposes nicely with the later scenes of her mopping floors. Bill is grounded in a very distinct social reality, and this story builds on that with the use of space-time and with the general plot. And, of course, the ultimate exploitation here is the total physical one: her body being used for, ahem, spare parts.
TIBERE: Definitely picked up on the chips scene. Really, the whole episode is just a huge, gigantic class metaphor – and at the core of it all is the oh so ambivalent figure of the Doctor. And there, I need to point out that huge, colossal parallel that’s so obvious I missed it on first watch: Bill puts her faith in a Doctor, while being tortured and exploited, well … By doctors. Working in an hospital.
SCRIBBLES: Within that, we also get to see the Cybermen as a metaphor for the experience of oppression. The turning down of the dial of speech, the silencing of pain, that makes for a beautiful metaphorical representation of the silencing of marginalized, hurt voices by the dominant power. For political justice, people really need to be able to speak out about their pain. And here, Cybermen are portrayed as the ultimate silenced sufferers, the fate of the marginalized if the oppression never ends.
SAM: What really struck home for me was the line of dialogue which explained they still feel pain, they just no longer cared about it. And I just thought back to all those times where I’ve come home from a stressful day at work, my feet are aching like mad, my back’s in agony, and I just want to lie down and forget the pain. Like, in those moments, if someone came up to me and offered a chance for that to become a reality? I do actually think I’d consider taking that option … and it absolutely terrifies me.
TIBERE: I’ve read that some people also really appreciated the fact that Bill is portrayed, for most of the episode, as a disabled person, or at least someone suffering of severe chronic illness. It adds some power to the political messages of the episode, I find. And it might be a subtle dig to all those people that made shitty jokes about the BBC wanting to tick boxes when Bill was first announced, too – you know, the “make her trans and disabled while you’re at it hur hur hur” crowd (fuck those people with a spiky spiky cactus, by the way).
SCRIBBLES: I had absolutely the same thought while watching the episode. If Bill makes it out of this alive and continues as a companion, I’d love her to still use life support technology, because that is a reality many people live and would be a lovely bit of representation, I think.
TIBERE: Of course, I’ll stick to my pet theory that Twelve is going to regenerate to heal her through that. If I’m right, I’ll ask for … I don’t know, a coffee or something.
SCRIBBLES: What’s more, though, chronic illness often comes from human exploitation. The poorest and most oppressed people often suffer as a result of things like industrial pollution and factory exploitation and such, so tying the wounds of Bill to the oppression the Cybermen are created and, inescapably, her own marginalized identity, is an intriguing direction.
TIBERE: I guess that’s one point the episode could have expanded on a bit – what kind of society are we dealing with here? We know it’s collapsing, but the actual details are a bit vague.
SCRIBBLES: I do wonder if that will be expanded upon or left out. I know plenty of people were rejoicing over space left for “Spare Parts,” but I couldn’t care less about that. A story should function on its own, really, not on an audio play most of the audience won’t have heard. I really hope the next part fleshes out a bit the world it’s examining. I’d love to know what sort of painful illness the colonists-turned-Cybermen were driven to what they did because of and get a better picture of this incarnation of their origin story.
TIBERE: Still, this is one situation where the general coherency of the series works wonders. The episode references “Smile” a lot – we have a colony ship, of course; I think one of the levels is depicted through a stock-shot from that episode; and even the expression “skeleton crew”, that was a big pun in “Smile” comes back. So we can safely go for an anti capitalist/anti-imperialist reading, I think.
SCRIBBLES: Indeed. And, speaking of thematic coherency, I think it’s interesting how the concept of motherhood simmers briefly here, alongside with the general notion of subverting and replacing patriarchy with matriarchy. Because those have been themes quite prominent through series 10. “The Pilot” and “The Lie of the Land,” for example, explored this with Bill’s own mum, an imaginary but powerful construct, as something that grounds her and helps her through life-threatening hardship. Meanwhile, episodes like “Empress of Mars” and “Knock Knock” juxtaposed patriarchies and matriarchies. One of the most interesting aspects of the latter episode was in the shift from the father-daughter relationship to the mother-son one and the resultant power structures, one causing damage and the other saving the day through love and responsibility. Here, we get slight echoes of that, most notably in the Master describing Bill as “like a mother to me.” It’s a really bizarre moment, but one that reflects these sorts of overarching themes, positioning Bill into a matriarchal position and reflecting her relationship with her mum. I do wonder if that will be key to Bill escaping the cyber-conversion and Cyberman neural network herself, through the psychic projection of the Doctor and her fabricated memory of her mum. Could even be what defeats the Cybermen this time out, we’ve already seen how powerful a signal that can be. That’d connect quite effectively to the plot and theme concerns of series 10 and its engagements with gender and privilege. And, of course, central to this episode is a similar reflection with Missy and her previous incarnation, itself an inversion of gendered structures of order. There’s so many lovely moments in this episode connected to the idea of gender identity, and particularly to rejection of those structures and an embracing of non-binary freedoms.
TIBERE: A little, but amusing thing as far as gender roles – Bill is shown preparing food at the beginning of the episode, as you pointed out, and we get to see Razor doing just the same later on. And of course, the main source of authority in the hospital is that Nurse. “Knock Knock” had this whole weird incestuous subtext to it, too, and I guess that’s also kind of a thing here, with the Master asking a kiss from the Mistress.
SAM: You could also argue there’s a feminist reading to this episode as well. When you consider the fact that, Missy, in her female incarnation, is actually considering embracing the life of the Doctor, the life of goodness, as opposed to her male incarnation who is still stuck in his destructive mindset. I think that links in with the themes of motherhood you addressed above quite nicely.
TIBERE: Definitely. The mask he wears can be interesting to analyze that way – both “Dark Water” and this hinge on a cliffhanger where a Master reveals their identity, but Missy accepts herself, just acts joyfully crazy in front of an oblivious Doctor, whereas Simm has this whole complex plan, this mask, these over-the-tops schemes. It’s very Simm, to be fair – and much like in his previous episodes, there’s this sort of grotesque, obscene element to the character. All his episodes involve twisting the humanity into a new, corrupt form, and this is exactly what happens here – whereas Missy has moved on, is trying to move forward with her life.
SCRIBBLES: There’s also, while discussing developments of pre-existing themes, a prominent new examination of putting faith not just in the Doctor, but in Doctor Who, the television series. Bill’s moments watching the screen with the Master are the only real hope she gets in the midst of a life of an oppressed, ill laborer. Not only does that feel all too true when the world looks to be in such a dire mess, but it’s sort of a development of the Russell T Davies era, with the Doctor sweeping into the lives of working class people and giving them hope, showing them something better. It’s just a corrupted, grim vision of that. This episode is a tremendously metafictional one in many ways. First we get Missy affectionately riffing on the conventions of the show by leaping into the Doctor mold, delightfully declaring the gender roles of the show to be “comic relief” and “exposition” and such. Which, when you think about, is actually quite biting. The arrangement of woman companion asking questions as exposition and man companion as comic relief is a pretty common one. Bill and Nardole, Harry and Sarah, Rose and Adam or Mickey or Jack, Amy and Rory, Zoe and Jamie, it goes on and on. It’s reductive, but then, so’s the gender binary. Then we get some progressive redefining of the mythos the way that’s really become a core feature of Moffat/Talalay collaborations, with that beautiful discussion between Twelve and Bill on the roof, blowing up the gender binary within the show while still critiquing patriarchal influence in it. That conversation even finds space to inform the concerns of the trauma and controversy of the episode, Bill demanding the Doctor promise not to let her die. And from there, we get everything going to Bill and the Master chilling by watching Doctor Who together, slow and in black and white, no less.
SAM: Bill really does represent the Doctor Who audience in that scene. The working class girl stuck some dingy cleaning job, coming home exhausted, getting wearier and wearier, more ill and decrepit by the day. And yet turning on her version Doctor Who, a programme she watches to take her mind off the horrible situation she’s found herself in, the dark and twisted world she’s living in, the horrors around her, and immerse herself in another world entirely. A programme she watches for hope. Hope for an escape. Hope for a better life. Which is basically what the majority of us watch Doctor Who for, at the end of the day, isn’t it? To lose ourselves in the fantasy of it all, and hope that the Doctor will come and save us, even just for that Saturday night.
TIBERE: The whole alternance between the two timestreams (bit “Girl who Waited”, is it not? A title that could fit Bill here, too) is just a wonderful conceit. To all your remarks, I’ll add that there’s a meta dimension to it all: really, when we watch Doctor Who, we only watch the interesting bits. The images we see on television are dictated by a script, organized by a plot. Bill gets to experience the world of Who without the Doctor – and if something like Class made anything clear, is that it’s not a nice place to find yourself in. The very presence of the Doctor turns things into a story, really – that’s part of his appeal, and also why he was at some point in the show’s history supposed to come from the Land of Fiction. Bill gets to experience the de-fictionalized version of the reality she was hanging around, and it hurts so bad. But there’s always an ambiguity here. First thing first, the character that controls the broadcast is the Master, who’s not exactly what you’d call a good guy. You can even read the story as a a re-telling of the famous Big Finish mindfuck, “The Natural History of Fear” – a story where Doctor Who is used as a tool of control, as the opium of the masses. And there’s just something deeply unpleasant about the Doctor’s actions here. He’s doing all that for Missy – he’s desperately trying to redeem his friend. And they’re both Time Lords – insistence on the Lord. They’re the upper class – look at the way the Doctor acts with the pilot/janitor of the ship. And of course, when the woman of the people, Bill, ends up in the middle of it, she pays the price, because there’s always collateral damage and because the little people always end up with the short end of the stick. Just look at the beginning – she’s the only person of colour to be here, she’s the only gay person (admittedly, the Mistress and the Doctor are both various shades of LGBT+) – of course she’s the one who dies. The “kill your gays” trope is the very point of the story. Missy kind of has a point when she says the companions are the Doctor’s “disposables”, in a way – especially when you listen to the more bloodthirsty portions of the fandom. And when that thematic throughline crosses dynamics of exploitation … Like, the Doctor might be weird, but his weirdness is also, in a way, the norm within the boundaries of the show. The LGBT people, the people of colour, they’re treated as an exception in our society, where the norm is the straight white male – the episode takes that kind of dynamic and transposes it to the world of Who; and of course it hurts to watch, but I think, much like something like “Kill the Moon”, there’s a value in examining and tearing down the privileges of the main characters.
SAM: An aspect of this story I found quite fascinating was how it’s directly coming full circle in terms of the themes being addressed, calling back to Capaldi’s very first series on the show. I mean, here you have the Doctor on a quest to change Missy and find the friend he once had, the friend he once dreamt of travelling the universe with and seeing the stars. To help her find the goodness within herself; just as he did in Series 8. Illuminating, yet again, just how much of an impact Clara Oswald has had, and is still having, on not only the Doctor but the show itself. The Doctor is actively using everything she taught him during their travels together in order to help his oldest friend. I mean, just think back to the Doctor and Clara’s argument in ‘Into the Dalek’, where Clara is trying so hard to get him to see that evil is not born, it’s fashioned, it’s created. And that goodness can always be found within, that it’s not about whether you’re good or not, but whether you try to be. That’s what counts. And he’s taking all of these lessons, using everything he learnt, and applying them to Missy. ‘World Enough and Time’ is Moffat exploring the direct consequences of this.
SCRIBBLES: But even in that corruption, there’s ambiguity. Just as in “The Eaters of Light,” we noted how the Doctor and Missy bonded and came to understand each other through, essentially, watching Doctor Who, here Bill and Simm’s Master do the same thing. While the Master does stab her in the back in the end, there’s an interesting indeterminate gray area where his care for her could have been genuine. Cheekily noting how her optimism will help her through this trauma, for example, and saying hugging her hurts his heart, even if he has to brush it off with a joke. He seems genuinely upset to have to give in to Bill’s requests and escort her to the conversion theatre. How much of that is manipulation and how much genuine is always the question with the Master, but to me, the most compelling and rich version of this episode is one in which he truly is genuine in his friendship with Bill, whatever else.
TIBERE: There’s a lot of nuance here. I mean, he doesn’t even lie to her in the dialogue – if you pay attention to the geography of the ship, the lifts are indeed located behind the operation theaters! There’s a nice amount of uncertainty, here – you don’t know how much the Master has planned, and how much he just improvises as he goes along. It’s very reminiscent of the (fantastic) show Hannibal, whose main antagonist’s drive is just to “see what would happen” if he did this or that. But the Master, of course, also acts as a twisted mirror of the Doctor here, and there is soooo many subtle hints to that hidden throughout the episode. There’s the general appearance and demeanour of his Razor personna, first. Some people saw in it a bit of a crude anti-semitic caricature, I read? I guess I can see it in a way, and that’s rather unfortunate; but on a rewatch, I had the feeling it was made to evoke the performances of certain Classic Doctors’ interprets. I thought Patrick Troughton, a bit – I mean, his character was referred to as a “space hobo” multiple times, which a pretty spot-on way to describe Razor.
SAM: Yeah, the ambiguity was one of my favourite aspects of the episode, to be honest. I think a part of him absolutely wanted to use the companion of his arch nemesis to become the first Cyberman, and yet I don’t believe he anticipated just how much he’d actually like Bill, how much he enjoyed her presence. And I imagine that’s why it took so long for Razor to take Bill to be converted. I truly believe on some level the Master was delaying the inevitable for as much his own sake as well as Bill’s. Of course, you could read it as the Master being his usual deceptive and manipulative self, toying with Bill, giving her hope of an escape, force her to sit through hours and hours of the Doctor to show her just how close he was to bringing her home, only to then snatch it away at last minute … but I definitely think there was a level of care, respect, and even admiration for Bill that the Master didn’t anticipate. And I do wonder if the next episode will explore this more, will we Simm’s incarnation feeling regret for his actions? Will he work with the Doctor to save Bill and rectify his mistake? I think it’d be quite fascinating to see.
SCRIBBLES: The anti-semitic caricature is an interesting point. I doubt such a thing is intentional, but it is a thing with history. The Master has done racist disguises before, with Kalid in Time-Flight being unforgettably offensive. I imagine, like you say, it’s far more an attempt at riffing on the second Doctor era. Alasdair Wilkins described the accent in his review as “of no earthly origin,” which I think gets at the intent there. Indeed, it reminds me a bit of another Troughton moment, that of Milo Clancey in “The Space Pirates,” a character with an accent like no human ever that’s just so hilariously unbelievable it somehow feels like it sums up Doctor Who. Again, this episode is in many ways an affectionate riffing and reflection on Doctor Who past. The persona is a bit of that. Disguises were always the classic Master’s delightful gimmick, and it’s fun to see here, with him just disguised up for the fun of it. I mean, really, who’s going to recognize a human Prime Minister in space? Nah, it’s just the Master being the Master, and there’s something tremendously enjoyable about that, even if it does come with some deeply unfortunate implications. Certainly it’s far better off than something like “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” or even the Draconians, and that’s never stopped the fandom.
TIBERE: It’s not just his persona, though. Randomly putting on something on his eyes? The Tenth Doctor did that in “Doomsday”. The whole thing with the tea at the beginning of the episode? That could be a reference to multiple incarnations. But really, my favourite is an element of set design – have a good, long look at Razor’s office. It feels like an exact – albeit corrupted and degraded – replica of Twelve’s room in Bill’s college. The parallels are omnipresent – really, both the Master and the Doctor here present themselves as allies of the people, only to let them down at the worst moment possible. It’s all summed up in a really lovely shot, when Bill is going in town with Razor: she literally is standing at mid-point between the apparition of the Twelfth Doctor and the Master here. Of course, there’s a nice play with light, too – Twelve often appears in the cold blue light of the operating theatres, whereas Razor is mostly framed in orange and red light, especially when he’s in his office. The first scene when we see him is especially good: Talalay frames half of his face in darkness and the other in light, as if to communicate to the viewer that he’s a two-faced, duplicitous character.
SCRIBBLES: Speaking of cold blue light, the winter tone and imagery we discussed last week begins to pay off big time here. That cold open lets us know winter has come, and with it, a time for endings. Even in the sunny longest days of summer, this finale is written for the dark, bleak days. Which fits the tone. It’s the job of a penultimate episode like this one to ratchet up the stakes to breaking point and push the story to its most traumatic. It certainly succeeds in that. We may not get the amazing confrontation between Clara and Twelve to let us know this is the darkest hour, but like Dark Water,” that’s what this episode is. The hardest point. The greatest suffering. The narrative dead of winter, with the spring of new life lying ahead.
TIBERE: Eh eh, “cold open”. But yes, absolutely – it’s also a neat structural trick, in that it sets off a whole imagery of rebirth and circularity (kind of emphasized, albeit involuntarily, by the fact that first shot is an exact replica of a “Last Christmas” one with different visual filters on top); which immediately directs your mind when you get to the point where Bill is shot. And really, that’s interesting, because in a way, the inclusion of the Cybermen feels like it complements that theme perfectly. The Cybermen are also a race that tries to regenerate, to renew themselves – except that in doing so, they become monstrous. They have always stood, at their best, as figures of narrative corruption, of collapse – most notably in “Legend of the Cybermen”, a Mike Maddox BF audio which is also one of the best Who stories ever written -. And that’s what happens here – they come to corrupt and taint the narrative of regeneration. The beginning of the episode sets that up perfectly, really – you get an absolutely stereotypical Who setting, and that’s even lampshaded by the inclusion of Missy, and then it’s all reversed and destroyed when Bill is shot, and when, immediately after, the Cybermen arrive. Hell, when you get down to it – it’s the presence of the Cybermen that causes Bill to “die” in the first place!
SCRIBBLES: And, of course, the Cybermen of “The Tenth Planet” are connected to the ice and snow imagery. As some have speculated, that cold open could very well even be a return to the Antarctic setting of that first regeneration story, connecting themes and character moments for an epic send-off to the Twelfth Doctor. But moreso, really, they’re creatures of winter. They’re what happens when a world goes cold and life fades as it spirals away from the sun, but the people cling on, trying to overcome the winter and survive, just without any eventual spring to let them rest. They’re constantly waiting for a way out, waiting so long that they scarcely remember what they were waiting for, so determined to survive.
TIBERE: Definitely. I’ll strongly suggest all readers to go read Phil Sandifer’s analysis of “The Tenth Planet”, it’s absolutely fantastic and explains very well the almost vampiric nature of the Mondasians in that story.
SCRIBBLES: Speaking of, I think the beat where Bill’s body is claimed by the patients is a fascinating one. Because it captures the hope the Cybermen offer, which I have always thought was one of the most compelling aspects of them. Seeing Bill die horribly, we all want to see her survive, at any cost. That’s what the Cybermen offer, really: hope of survival. These aren’t just monsters. They’re things people want to happen. They want to keep things safe and alive. It’s horrific and corrupted, but they do take away the pain and succeed in survival. That’s what makes the Cybermen such a great concept, really. And that’s what this episode doubles down on.
SAM: I absolutely agree, that’s really what makes the Cybermen so utterly terrifying monsters. The sense of inevitability that Tibere picked up on before. That no matter what universe they’re in whether it’s parallel or not, or no matter if it’s a twin planet or here on Earth, these metal machines are what the human race will end up becoming – and there is absolutely nothing we can do to change that. And furthermore, adding to to this terror is the fact that they could absolutely become a reality in our own future. Just look at how far we’ve come in terms of medical advances over the last few decades. Those who’ve lost limbs can now replace them with mechanical body parts! Those who no longer have functioning organs can have surgery to replace these instead. We as a race are fascinated in self preservation, restoration, in keeping ourselves alive. Which is exactly what the Cybermen offer us. And who knows, in another few decades, when we’ve really begun to make breakthroughs in the word of robotics, a real life Cybermen could be what we’re destined to become. This could be where, we, the human race, take the next stage of our evolution. And it’s really horrifying to consider.
TIBERE: That’s the core message, really – to be the oppressed one, to be the lower class, the worker bees, is such a suffering that it will inevitably lead to self-lobotomy in the hope of dimming the pain a little bit. The least you can say about it is that it’s not being soft with that message! Of course, the fact is it doesn’t really work – you just end up with strings of people suffering all day and all night. That’s why I feel this episode is so much better than its obvious spiritual predecessor, “Spare Parts” – “Spare Parts” had a lot of intriguing ideas about the origins of the Cybermen, creating a world influenced both by Soviet dictatorships and the French Reign of Terror, suggesting that the Doctor might have given birth to the Cybermen, etc. … But it never bothered finding one core hook that would justify their genesis. This, though? It absolutely has one, and it’s a strong, oh so relevant one. And you know, Steven Moffat is just a much, much better writer than Marc Platt.
SCRIBBLES: Pacing that works, such a nice feeling.
TIBERE: I still haven’t fully recovered from “Paper Cuts”.
4) Final Thoughts
SCRIBBLES: That was rather wonderful, a great reminder of how Doctor Who still has so much to offer even after all this time. The fact that this rather obvious Cyberman story hasn’t been told before is mind-boggling, but the results are so, so compelling, and Moffat reminds yet again of his mastery of storytelling structure. This isn’t the heaviest on plot, but it’s a blisteringly good slow-burn character tragedy. Everything, of course, hinges on how next week pays it off. There’s so many different directions it could go, many brilliant and many more unfortunate. But last time I was this kind of fearful about where Moffat might take the story, I was delighted with “Hell Bent,” my favorite ever episode. So I think this is just the beginning of yet another amazing finale, taking us all the way to Christmas on a high. I don’t know where the story will go, I don’t know how Bill will get out, I don’t even know who will still be left by the end of this story–not even necessarily Capaldi, at this point–but I know what’s to come will be every bit as brilliant. There’s so many themes, character arcs, and plot points left to tie up in some form or another, but in the beating heart of this macabre beast (located outside the chest, apparently, in a little glass box), every little ingredient of what’s worked about series 10 is churning and mixing into something unforgettable. There’s not yet been a Moffat/Talalay Doctor Who episode that’s failed to surprise and astonish me in the best of ways, all the while delighting me with some of the most positive and revolutionary themes the show has ever known. Looks like that won’t stop being the case ‘till Christmas reaches its end.
SCARVES: While acknowledging the potentially problematic aspects of this episode is absolutely necessary, it was superb television. I haven’t mentioned Rachel Talalay’s direction yet, have I? She was absolutely made for making the mondasian cybermen scary on the 21st century – they are perfectly suited to the more expressionistic aspects of her directorial style. It gets under your skin, hooks you in, and leaves you reeling. Overall, a superb part one, let’s hope “The Doctor Falls” follows suit.
SAM: I honestly consider this to be one of the strongest episodes of the Capaldi era, and one of the finest in the shows history as well. But not only that, I believe it’s one of the only episodes within New Who to get the Cybermen absolutely perfect – that makes them feel like an actual conceivable threat, by actually utilising the aspects of their concept that makes them so utterly terrifying. And I think Moffat had a huge hand in this with Talalay’s absolutely astonishing direction, seriously it was so, so good; she elevated those moments of tension, and really added to the sombre and bleak atmosphere of the episode. Having said all of that, my thoughts could easily change. And it all depends on how Moffat decides to wrap up this story. And I must admit, I do find myself a little apprehensive about next week. There’s a certain niggling thought “What if he’s listened to those fans screaming out for permanent death?” which would be hugely detrimental to, not only this series, but the show itself – in terms of everything we discussed above about representation.
TIBERE: Sadly, that kind of discourse is very prevalent throughout the fandom. The only thing more tragic than the existence of “To the Death” is its popularity.
SCRIBBLES: That’s my one anxiety. A wonderful thing about Moffat has always been that he listens to criticism and strives to improve, but that criticism being taken to heart would be devastating for the show. I don’t think it will be the case, yet I can’t help but fear anyway. I’d rather deal with a hundred fans complaining that “World Enough and Time” was undermined just because Bill survives it than the emotional reality of everything Bill is being wiped away and stomped on with an agency-free death for angst value.
SAM: Indeed. I still hold onto the hope that Moffat is pulling another ‘Hell Bent’ and is subverting the tropes instead of adhering to them.
SCRIBBLES: I dearly hope so. This amazing episode is part one in three episodes that will really determine the legacy of Steven Moffat’s time on the show. And I know what I hope for that legacy to look like. So far, so good.
SAM: Same here, and yet there’s a little voice going round my head repeating the name “Mary Watson”. But maybe that was just an off day for him…
TIBERE: I don’t want to shield Moffat from the blame on that one – ‘cause he deserves it, really -, but her death does have Gatiss’ fingerprints all over it, I feel. The whole “let’s stick to the canon and honour the past” discourse is much more his thing than Moffat’s. So I wouldn’t worry “too” much – especially when Talalay is here. Even if she was the one to direct “The Six Thatchers”, I do feel like she had a positive influence over that script, and tried to seriously limit its most iffy aspects. I’m not sure she succeeded, really, but the track record of the people involved does allow me to leave them the benefit of the doubt. As for “World Enough and Time” … It’s a great story. Admittedly, an uncomfortable one, and I’m not sure you can truly judge it without a complete picture of Bill’s narrative arc; but still, a great one. Much like most of series 10, it has a classical, traditional edge, but – like the best episodes this year have done -, it elevates it through absolutely wonderful, razor-sharp (pun not intended) thematic focus, and the result is one of Steven Moffat’s richest, most biting and incisive scripts. If “The Doctor Falls” manages to tie all of this, it might go down in Who history as one of the absolute best stories in the run of the show. In the meantime, it’s wonderful. Well, “wonderful”. Horrific and dark and corrosive in all the best ways – but really, I think that’s part of the joy of Cybermen stories. The best ones find a way to horrify you by making you face a disgusting portrayal of human corruption before trying to search for light and positivity and healing. “Death in Heaven” did it – even though that specific arc really comes to a close in “Last Christmas”; “Legend of the Cybermen” did it better than anything else; Joseph Lidster’s very underrated “The Gathering” did it. I definitely hope next week will bring that kind of joy, especially to all the people that might have felt hurt or deceived by this episode – and I’m confident it will. If it does, it will be a wonderful end to a great political run of Doctor Who. Maybe the best political run of Doctor Who of all time, actually – maybe Moffat was less inspired this year, maybe he was relying more on old tricks, on solidity rather than genius, but he has found such a new life and energy by diving into the pool of political discourse that I can only be really, really satisfied with him, and what he brought us this year.
This concludes our talk on “World Enough and Time”, see you next week for a series 10 wrap-up!